HUNTSVILLE, Alabama - In April 2003, U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos was on a counter-terrorism mission in Basra, Iraq, when a BBC reporter approached him and made a demand.
"She said 'the finest museum in the world is being looted. What are you going to do about it?' " Bogdanos said in a recent telephone interview from his office in New York City.
The museum in question was the National Museum of Iraq, which is located in Baghdad and is home to some of the most important relics from the 5,000 years of Mesopotamian civilization.
All the reporter knew when she approached Bogdanos that day was that he was an American military officer. She didn't know that in his personal life Bogdanos was a welter-weight boxer, a prosecutor in the New York County District Attorney's office or that he had a master's degree in classics from Columbia University.
With that background, Bogdanos was not going to stand by and watch some the world's greatest treasures disappear. He got on the satellite phone to his general and asked to go to Baghdad.
"I said 'I can fix this,' " Bogdanos said. " 'Give me permission to do this.' "
The rest of the story is what Bogdanos will share on Thursday at 7 p.m. as the first speaker in the Huntsville Museum of Art's new lecture series, "Voices of Our Times." Bogdanos will also sign copies of his best-selling book, "Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine's Passion to Recover the World's Greatest Stolen Treasures."
The lecture series will continue Feb. 29 when Gloria Vanderbilt makes a rare public lecture appearance with Wendy Goodman, author of "The World of Gloria Vanderbilt." Betty Monkman, who was a curator at the White House for more than 30 years, will be the speaker on March 29.
Bogdanos, who is back in Manhattan and prosecuting homicides, is coming to Huntsville at the request of his friend, Christopher Madkour, the museum's new director. Madkour asked Bogdanos to kick off the lecture series because the two share similar interests.
"He's a classicist, and my field of interest is in Islamic art and architecture," said Madkour, who attended graduate school at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Bogdanos' "quest, his interests, are very much my interests."
Besides, Madkour said, Bogdanos will deliver an "edge-of-your-seat" talk in which he tells the story of the five years he and his team tracked the lost antiquities, which included "40 of the finest pieces of art in the world, marquis pieces that you see in art history books," Bogdanos said. Of those priceless pieces, 24 have been recovered.
Other works stolen included 15,000 pieces that were looted from museum storage rooms and 62,000 manuscripts, some dating back 1,000 years. About two-thirds of the art that was in storage has been found as have virtually all of the manuscripts.
The search for the lost items took Bogdanos and his team to multiple countries and not without risk. One member of his team was killed in the attempts to recover the stolen items, he said. For the effort, President George W. Bush presented Bogdanos the National Humanities Medal in 2005.
Bogdanos continues to be involved in the search for the stolen items but in a more ad hoc way, he said. He serves as an adviser to the teams of people involved in the recovery effort.
"We're not done until each and every piece that was stolen from the Iraqi people" is found," Bogdanos said. "I'm not done."
For more on the lecture series: 'Voices of Our Times' lecture series brings notable speakers to Huntsville Museum of Art